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Tuesday, May 14th at 10pm on WGVU Public Television, PBS FRONTLINE presents "A Dangerous Assignment: Uncovering Corruption in Maduro’s Venezuela."

The inside story of Alex Saab, his capture and then release by the U.S. in a controversial prisoner swap, and what has happened to the journalists who helped uncover the corruption scandal. WGVU talks with film director, Juan Andres Revell about the work of Armando.info investigative journalist Roberto Deniz.

Juan Andres Ravell: This story, we've been working with Armando Info, working on this documentary for about three years now. I've been following Roberto's footsteps. I am, by the way, a big fan of his work. I read his articles as he was publishing all of this and I was following the story, but it never seemed like a documentary until specifically when Alex Saab, the person he was investigating, was captured in Key Verde and then extradited to the U.S. And then for a while Armando Info is the news site that is with FRONTLINE and with me on this film. And they've been uncovering corruption cases in Venezuela for 10 years now. This is their 10-year anniversary. But this is the biggest case they have tackled and the case that changed their lives. Because of doing this investigation into Maduro's favorite contractor, Alex Saab, they had to leave the country and continue working and investigating from exile, which makes this a very unique story because usually what happens when authoritarian regimes persecute journalists, they stop writing, you know. They decided to stay investigating, but for that they needed to leave the country. So, it's an unique story in that sense, and also it's unique just because of the size of the corruption. It's, you can't understand how big it is, and we try to put that in the film to people to grasp and see, one, the behind the scenes of an investigation, see the craft of the journalism that Roberto does. But also, the behind the scenes of how the Maduro regime works and how it uses this court of kleptocrats for their own service and how Maduro holds onto power by using this corruption money.

Patrick Center: What specifically is happening with the Maduro administration in Venezuela?

Juan Andres Ravell: What we're seeing is something that some experts call a kleptocracy, which is a regime that basically sustains itself in corruption that uses the money from government contracts to funnel to themselves somehow and use that as a ways of obtaining power and keeping power. Also, this is not present in the film, but for context, there's no rule of law in Venezuela. So, if you're investigating something like this and you publish, if you get a lawsuit, like Roberto, the main investigator in the film, he gets a lawsuit and you're not going to court and have a free, fair trial. You might end up in jail because it can be a criminal accusation, just defaming someone according to them, you know? So, the risks of reporting are high, and the risks of reporting are high because they don't want this out. And that's exactly what good journalism does. And that's exactly what Roberto and Armando Info do is just very potent good journalism.

Patrick Center: And what were they discovering as they're investigating the relationship between President Maduro and this businessman, Alex Saab?

Juan Andres Ravell: Well, they discovered there was a clear, very close relationship between Alex Saab and the Maduro family and also Maduro's wife, Cilia Flores and his children. So, there's a close relationship and he starts getting tons of government contracts that have no oversight, that were very hard to track with companies that were newly formed in jurisdictions like Hong Kong, Emirates Arabs, or Mexico, Turkey. So, you can see that they were trying to hide something. And that's what Roberto is uncovering. The first investigation we show in the film is related to a very important food program called the CLAP program (Comité Local de Abastecimiento y Producción). So, while Venezuela was in the midst of a hunger crisis or humanitarian crisis, we could say, the government decided to distribute food to the poorest and the most in need for subsidized food, basically. And what Roberto found out through his investigation is that one, Alex Saab was doing these imports of food, which at the first hand, they don't sound terrible. Importing food is okay. The thing is he was charging outstanding prices for this and he was delivering subpar products that were a health hazard. You know, they were distributing supposed milk that wasn't real milk. So, you could say it was a sort of food fraud that was happening while Venezuela is in a very, very brutal food crisis, you know.

Patrick Center: So as Roberto is investigating, are there threats? What is happening as the story is being revealed?

Juan Andres Ravell: So initially after they published the connection between Saab and the overpriced low quality food program, Roberto and the Armando Info team get a lawsuit, defamation lawsuit. They have to exit the country in order to continue investigating. And even in exile, the harassment has continued. For example, we show in the film Roberto's house in Caracas where his family lives being raided. So, there's not only persecution in Venezuela, but also it's clear that even in exile, there's some risks.

Patrick Center: Roberto has been able to investigate from a distance. How is he able to do this?

Juan Andres Ravell: Well, from a distance, opportunities open. Once the news was out that Roberto had been, had this lawsuit. I guess some sources knew that Roberto was onto this and sources approach the known journalist that is reporting on the case. So, by Roberto being more well known, he's also approached by sources, but also you can meet outside Venezuela. You can meet people outside Venezuela. You can meet people in Venezuela through secure messaging apps. So, it's not impossible to report from the outside. It's, it's quite possible now.

Patrick Center: Big picture. What should Americans watching this film take away from this investigation?

Juan Andres Ravell: Well, I think it's a good opportunity to Americans to understand a country that is close to them. I think in a way, it helps you understand the flow of immigration from Venezuela. By understanding what's happening in Venezuela, I think you will have a clearer picture of why the country's in such a bad shape. And you will also see through Roberto's reporting, you will see how the Venezuelan government works. You will also see high stakes political negotiations between Venezuela and the United States that are very present in the end of the film when Biden signed the clemency to release Alex Saab. So, I don't know, I don’t want to spoil the ending because it's happened, it's been reported, it's a known fact. But I think it's a good film to watch to understand what is going to happen in the next Venezuelan elections in July. So, it will give you a lot of contexts on what we're dealing with in Venezuela right now.

Patrick Center: Tonight at 10 o'clock (Tuesday, May 14, 2024) on WGVU public television PBS frontline presents a dangerous assignment on covering corruption in Maduro's Venezuela film director Juan Andres Ravell. Thank you so much for joining us.

Juan Andres Ravell: No, thank you very much.

Patrick joined WGVU Public Media in December, 2008 after eight years of investigative reporting at Grand Rapids' WOOD-TV8 and three years at WYTV News Channel 33 in Youngstown, Ohio. As News and Public Affairs Director, Patrick manages our daily radio news operation and public interest television programming. An award-winning reporter, Patrick has won multiple Michigan Associated Press Best Reporter/Anchor awards and is a three-time Academy of Television Arts & Sciences EMMY Award winner with 14 nominations.